The Austin that marched
[The Austin Seven has probably given more pleasure to a greater number of impecunious enthusiasts than any other car. Consequently, it has received proportionate space in Motor Sport. Articles relating to it have included contemporary road-tests of the Brooklands Cup, unblown Ulster, blown Ulster and other models; “Austin Seven Can’s and Can’ts”—Mallock—Sept 1943; “An Ambitious Austin Seven Special”—Jan 1944; “A Blown 750″—Moon—Aug 1944; “Observations on the Austin Seven Nippy”—Moon–April 1945; “It’s One of the Team Cars, Old Boy”—Boddy—Sept 1945; “Some Austin Seven Specials”—Boddy—Nov 1945; “A Single-Seater Racing Austin Seven”—Boddy—Nov 1945; “A Successful Amateur Venture”—Machlachlan—Nov 1945; “Recipe for a 70-m.p.h. Chummy”—Boddy—June 1946; “The Austin Grasshoppers”— Biggs—Jan 1947; “The Development of the Racing Austin Seven” —Boddy—March and April 1947 (reprinted by the Austin Motor Co); “Charles Goodacre on Austin Racing Cars”—Boddy—Feb 1949; “Early Austin Sevens”—Boddy—Oct 1949; and “The Austin Seven from the Special-Builder’s Angle”—Birkett—May 1950; etc. That seemed to cover the field pretty thoroughly and the 750 MC has carried on the good work. One gap remained—the account of how a private owner twice ran an Austin Seven in the 24-Hour Race at Le Mans. I tried hard to trace the entrant, Charles Metchim, and at last contacted him in Nairobi and persuaded him to write the following fascinating article.—Ed.]
The years during which I was a regular competitor—1929 to 1934—were the golden age of motor racing. The drivers of those days have never been surpassed and never were races more sternly contested with more magnificent cars! Older drivers will know, and younger ones will in due course, that the golden age of motor racing is the period in which they compete themselves. Nothing will ever compare with that time—ever !
For me, the supreme form of racing was on a road circuit. How to participate in this exquisitely delectable form of amusement had exercised my mind for many years previously. It must have begun early in 1921, at my prep school, when one of the “big” boys, speaking with all the assurance of ten years at least, informed me that in the 200-Mile Race the Talbot-Darracqs would come in first, second and third. Which of course they did !
As the only son of a violently anti-motoring family, it was constantly being impressed upon me that my responsibilities, later in life, would be very heavy. Any mention of my owning a car was curtly dismissed. And as for motor-cycles ! I did, however, manage to take out a driving licence, ultimately. Indeed, had it not been for the fabulous uncle, all would have been lost. Of this, more anon.
In my urgent desire to participate in a road race I was not alone. In those far-off days of 1929, one could race at Brooklands—and nowhere else. Even the odd Campbell circuit and the even odder Mountain circuit, both of which had corners, were still things of the future. True, in 1925, the Brooklands authorities, pandering to the queer tastes of the Continentals, arranged artificial bends in the finishing straight. By these means, a faint resemblance to a road circuit was achieved. Other than that, races short and long were an all-out blind round the outer circuit. Those were not the days!
Then the Junior Car Club had an idea. Inside the Brooklands Track were a number of roads used by the public to reach various vantage points, and the Junior Car Club noted that, by using these roads and also part of the track itself a circuit with real corners could be formed. Three real corners and an artificial one per lap ! As the Junior Car Club so shrewdly surmised the powers-that-be would never agree to such a circuit being used fur racing—not a hope !—but they might allow a trial, run at fairly high speed. Thus sugared, the JCC administered the pill and the High-Speed Trial was born.
The sugaring had been laid on thick. The set speeds were indeed high for those days, but not unduly so for standard cars in touring trim. True, there was a little bit in the rules about sports models being permitted and another little bit about superchargers being in order if standard. And again there was a little bit about special awards for those who exceeded their schedule by 20 per cent, which meant going very fast indeed. Announcing that this event was not a race, the JCC set the distance at 60 miles. Possibly coincidently, they allowed the 1350-cc class to start five minutes ahead of the 1,100-cc class, which, in turn. started ten minutes ahead of the 1.500-cc class. Oddly enough it was this latter class that might contain the supercharged Lea-Francis TT cars and the supercharged Alvis TT cars.
Now this really was something. It was certainly not real road racing, but it was the nearest thing to it that had ever appeared in England. Because this event was not a race, it enabled people like myself, with difficult parents, to broach the subject boldly. But my suggestion that I should drive one of my father’s cars was ruthlessly swept aside. As an afterthought, I would be allowed to drive— if the fabulous uncle would lend me his own car. This was rubbing salt into the wound with a vengeance. There was no possibility of the fabulous uncle lending me his car. For one thing, it was brand new, not only brand new, but the very thing in Austin Sevens—a Boyd Carpenter Special. And as a driver I too, was brand new. What a hope ! But what a car to drive ! And what an event to drive it in !
So, as a forlorn hope I wrote to my uncle asking him if he would let me drive his car in a Brooklands event. It was absolutely staggering to my father and myself—in our different ways—when my uncle replied saying that despite having to cut short his holidays, he thought it was a good idea, but would I mind if he came as my mechanic ? Would I mind !
So, on July 6th, 1929, I found myself facing the starter for the first time behind the wheel of this lovely little car. Unfortunately for our ambitions, the MG Car Company had also produced a lovely little car, the 850 cc, fabric-bodied two-seater. In those days, their sense of humour was scarcely less than that of the JCC. They announced that as a company they would take no part in racing officially. Nevertheless, five of the cars appeared on the line, three if which were driven by the Earl of March (now the Duke of Richmond and Gordon). the late Chris Staniland and HD Parker. Quite it team !
As for us, we did five stupendous laps on the tail of the fifth MG. Just when I had persuaded the fabulous uncle that there was no reason why we should not pass it, and was actually pulling out to do so, something in the engine went tyrrrrrrAHM ! Big-end. End.
But it was also a beginning and the infection took strongly.
Once having had the scent of Castrol R in the nostrils it became a matter of supreme urgency to obtain a car in which to compete as frequently as possible and, at the earliest possible moment, to drive in a proper road race.
In April, 1929, at the Easter Monday meeting at Brooklands, a single-seater Austin took part in the 47th 75-mph Short Handicap, a 21-lap event. Driven by JD Barnes, it covered the flying mile at 85 mph. (Best lap was at 71.35 mph—Ed)—not unduly slow for an unblown 750 of those days—and finished fourth in the race. Under the bonnet of this car was a prototype engine, to be known later us the “Ulster.” The chassis was standard, with the usual Austin arrangement of springing—transverse front and 1/4-elliptic rear end ; standard four-wheel brakes. This meant, even in those days, that the car was on the high side, not too well sprung and almost entirely unable to stop.
When the same car appeared again it was in a very different guise ! It had been entered for the Double Twelve a month later by FS Barnes, who was to drive it with his brother, JD. The red single’ seater body was removed and replaced by one that had started life in all good faith as a “Chummy.” The Barnes brothers set about it with powerful tools. They beat at the inside of the scuttle with heavy hammers until it became enormously bloated at the sides. The standard 4-gallon petrol tank was then removed and replaced by one holding nine, with its filler cap protruding through the top of the scuttle. Economically the 4-gallon tank was placed in the rear space behind the front seats. Seeing that there was still a little space left this was filled by the battery, transposed from its normal position under the driver’s seat. The glass windscreen, which may well have shattered under the treatment meted out to the scuttle, was replaced by a lie-down type. Further mayhem was committed on the body. A portion of the .bonnet was removed to allow for the protrusion of the exhaust manifold: another portion was removed from the door on the offside for the driver’s arm. An equivalent piece was removed from the opposite side where the door had been blanked out. This enabled the mechanic to rest his arm on the exhaust pipe, this was not quite such a good idea. What was left of the body, and to prevent it bursting out at the seams, was cross-braced with channel steel running immediutely behind the two seats and in front of the rear petrol tank. The whole was then painted orange. There may have been uglier cars in competition, but doubt it !
In those days sports-car events differed from those of today in several striking instances. At that time, the competing vehicles were in fact standard sports cars. Impressed by the performance of a particular make, it was possible to go to the nearest agents and purchase a similar car. If the car in the race was supercharged, the car which one purchased from the showroom was also superebarged. Against this excellent feature, not seen today, one had the travelling mechanic. This perilous custom has now become defunct, although there was never a shortage of these cheerful and courageous people willing to take the risk. Lastly, so beneficial to the public at that time and so infuriating to the competing drivers, was that the first 10 laps had to be run with the hood erected. Before then the erecting of hoods on open cars, and sports cars in particular, was a nightmare undertaking, as one was generally soaked through long before the feat—and it was a feat—had been accomplished.
Thus the rule about hoods for the first 10 laps was timely, maddening though it was. A hood that could be raised in a matter of seconds at once became essential. All sorts of ingenious arrangements were put into practice, not least on the Austin. In the latter instance, the lines of the rear compartment were caused to slope downwards. This, with the hood folding inside the rear compartment, the canvas lying on top of the petrol tank, meant that the usual wind resistance was eliminated. Furthermore, with one swinging motion, the hood could be raised and held in position by two leather straps hanging down each side of the screen and held by clips. It is difficult to state how long this took as the car was usually under way before the clips were made fast.
For those not familiar with the Ulster engine, the difference between it and the standard Seven was considerable. The dimensions were the same, but, otherwise the Ulster derived more from the Gordon England Brooklands model, of which it was the lineal descendant and logical outcome,
The Ulster had a high-compression head and a high-lift camshalt. This latter operated the side-by-side valves, the valves themselves being machined from the solid billet and were of tulip type, very beautiful. They were returned to their seats with preciaion and violence by twin valve springs; the tappets were non-adjustable thimbles. When adjustment became necessary. as was all too frequently the case, shims had to be inserted or, alternatively, the bases of the thimbles had to be ground down. “Hunting the thimble” took on a new and terrible significance. Adjusting the non-adjustable marked a man for life. Nevertheless, the engine would—and often had to—go up to 6,400 rpm, and any signs of valve bounce in practice merely indicated new valve springs.
As in those palmy days splash-lubrication was by no means unusual, it must be said at once that lubrication was at a pressure of 40 lb/sq in. I believe that the Ulster model, when it went on the market, had had its oil pressure put up to 50 lb. This highly desirable state of affairs was achieved by fitting, to the front end of the drilled crankshaft, an oil bottle—a most diabolical contraption—which quite often enabled the oil from the oil pump to enter the crankshaft by way of an annular ring. Other times it did not, the times appearing to be selected specially to cause the maximum despondency and alarm. The “cork” end of the oil bottle was intended to be sealed by the starting handle. This piece of happy optimism was misplaced. When used, which was frequent, the starting handle did not always return, under the compulsion of a powerful spring, correctly to its seat. The temperature of cold Castrol R did not betray the fact to the driver; nor that appreciable quantities of this expensive liquid were seeping past the instrument. However, as the engine warmed to its work, the pressure went on falling, and falling. On the other hand, it taught me in due course to watch one’s instruments with vigilance.
Turning to a happier aspect, ignition for the Ulster depended with unfailing assurance on a magneto. How lovely, the magneto ! If the battery gave up the ghost, it was only of consequence after dark. And the more the revs the bigger the spark.
Carburation on the Usters generally was by a large Solex, but for the prototype engine, now being described, this was often removed in favour of twin Zeniths. These immeese triple diffusers were of such considerable bulk that they had an equal share, with the rest of the power unit, of the space under the bonnet !
The cooling svstent was extraordinarily vague despite its impressive title of “thermo syphon,” Additional uncertainty was introduced by the removal of the fan and any means of driving one. As a concession to the inexorable laws of nature and the imminent threat of the cooling being undertaken by the production of superheated steam, a water tower with a length of copper pipe replaced the radiator cap and the overflow pipe of the radiator. Inside the water tower was a baffle and this device, in alliance with the copper pipe, cunningly spiralled, conserved the water against loss occasioned by violent braking.
From the point of view of performance, the most important feature of all was that each piston was sustained by no more than two piston rings. This resulted in both the rpm and the mpg (oil) being considerable. One could dismiss the remark that the pistons came up sideways with hauteur; on the other hand it had to be admitted that the passage of oil from the sump to the road by way of the highly polished exhaust ports was virtually unobstructed. To stem this prodigal consumption and to keep the level reasonably constant, an exterior oil tank, holding a quart, was connected to the sump, holding half a gallon. The smaller tank was placed within reach of the mechanic, who, by means of a lever, could, with one stroke, reinforce the sump with 1/4 of a pint.
During the 1930 season these Ulster-engined Austins carried all before them, finishing with a third and fourth in the Ards TT. But their’s was a brief glory. From then on their side-valve engines and three-speed gearboxes were completely eclipsed by the overhead camshafts and four-speed gearboxes of the Montlhery MGs. Nobody who had the good fortune to witness the first British Double Twelve-Hour Race of 1929 is likely to forget it. Superb handicapping welded cars of greatly differing capacity into fiercely disputed equality, while engulfing the unhappy timekeepers in a morass of decimal points. When the cars were brought in at the end of the first twelve hours’ running, at 8 pm, the enthralled spectators went home with an assurance of seeing an historic struggle renewing itself next day. Ramponi’s 11/2-litre supercharged Alfa-Romeo held a fractional lead over the 41/2-litre Bentley driven by Sir Ronald Gunter and SCH Davis. Almost as close behind and equally fractionally divided came another group of three. These were the 11/2-litre Aston Martin of Bertelli and Bessant and two 1,100-cc cars, the Salmson of Casse and Goutte and the Riley of Staniland and Whitcroft. When the second start occurred at 8 am on the following morning, some will remember how, amid loud cheers and incredulous laughter, the small orange Austin left the line almost at once and had almost completed the lap before another car started. Then the formidable Aston Martin moved off, but for the most part and for several minutes afterwards the cars stayed where they were while their crews strove to repair the damage that twelve hours of hammeriag on the rough track had inflicted on their sorely tried machines. As the day drew on and the fatal hour of 8 pm came inexorably closer, the struggle intensified in fury.
Aloof and inconspieuous, the solitary Austin continued on at its set speed. A Frenchman, standing beside me on the Test Hill, remarked as it passed : “La petite Austin marche toujours. mon Dieu !” It most certainly did.
Early on in the day, Fate had struck at the well-placed Riley, while its potent rival, the Salmson, had drawn away from the Aston Martin. Only the Alfa-Romeo and the Bentley still clung together. At one stage, the persistent Salmson actually went ahead of the Bentley, only to be passed again. When the Alfa had some trouble with its battery mountings the Bentley was in the lead, with the Salmson still on its heels. The Aston was still in the running, so that at 4 o’clock, with four hours to go, any of these four cars was a potential winner. Then the 41/2 burst a tyre and the Alfa, already past the Salmson, again went into the lead. And so it was that when the maroon burst in the air at 8 o’clock to announce the race over it was found that the Alfa had a formulae advantage of .003 over the Bentley—after twenty minutes of frenzied work on the part of the timekeepers. Some handicapping !
As to the Austin, it had covered 1,141.99 miles, had averaged 47.58 mph, and had finished in 22nd place to tie with a 41/2-litre lnvicta. Nice ” marching ” !
Three weeks later, the Austin appeared again in the last of the Six-Hour races. For this event, another attempt had been made to simulate a real road circuit by placing artificial bends in the finishing straight. The car appeared in much the same guise as for the Double Twelve. One might surmise that the 4.4-to-1 axle ratio was replaced by one of 4.9 and that the twin Zeniths replaced the single Solex.
Not alone in its class this time, the Austin had to contend with, among others, the redoubtable Vic. Horstman, driving a Triumph. Behind this class battle, ravenous hordes of 1,100-cc Rileys, blown 11/2-litre Lea-Francis, Alvis and Alfa-Romeo, 41/2-litre and 61/2-litre Bentleys bore down on the small fry ahead. For five hours the Austin held the lead and then the field was on its tail. Although it finished first in its class, six larger cars had passed it, so that it finished seventh in general category.
Six weeks later I made my own debut as already described, and from then on began a search for a car of my own in which to compete. A car that marched toujours, mon Dieu, was just the job. But how to get one ?
Miracles really do happen. I have before me a letter from the Junior Car Club, dated July 29th 1929, it states that as Mr Barnes was a member of the club it could not, in reply to my letter, give me his address. And lo ! on August 2nd, four days later, Barnes’ car, “La petite Austin” itself, was advertised in The Light Car and Cyclecar as raced in the Double Twelve and Six-Hour races” !
The arguments and delays were frightful. At first my father would not hear of it. Then, just as he was showing signs of relenting, Barnes wanted the car to run at Shelsley Walsh. With the battle ebbing and flowing, the car, after an interminable time, became mine on November 1st. With rosy optimism, I had already entered, a few weeks previously, for one of the JCC Half-Day Reliability trials which was to be run off on November 2nd—the day after the arrival of the car.
After the debacle with the Boyd Carpenter, I had come to the reluctant conclusion that for the moment neither Sir Henry Segrave nor Sir Malcolm Campbell need fear being outshone. The best thing to do would be to start at the very bottom; there seemed to be quite a lot I needed to learn. The JCC half-day events were the answer, now that the season was over. Promptly I went down with a severe chill, so very severe that, when an appalling uproar outside announced the arrival of the car, I was unable to get up from bed to go and see it. And the trial was the next day. I must have been ill !
Next day I had to get up and did—just. What a moment it was to open the garage doors and see the little brute lurking inside, wondering what its new master was going to be like and what was in store for it. Little did it know ! Little did I know ! For on that day began an association that was to last over four years, in which I had to endure all the viscissitudes of fortune that covered the whole gamut of human emotions from the blank despair of repeated failures to moments of satisfaction beyond words. Starting as and from November 1st with myself in bed, at the ideally wrong moment !
Now, having made the acquaintance of the car, an attempt to start the engine showed that the battery was flat. Invoking the assistance of my sister and the gardener, we tried a push start; she started. The noise was shattering. Great clouds of blue smoke, pregnant with the smell of “R” drifted away across the flowerbeds. My father’s remark that he thought there had been an earthquake was an historic one. From that day on, the car was known to its many friends as “The Earthquake”—and still is !
A trial run showed that even with the single Solex the acceleration was noteworthy by any standards. The engine also ran extremely hot; when the brakes were applied, great jets of scalding water issued from the water tower. Owing to the windscreen being absent on delivery of the car, there was nothing to check the scalding water except the driver’s face –which did.
Rushing off to the start, with rags hastily bound round the water tower, with a flat battery, and all the tools left behind, we did not, oddly enough, gain an award. It was the start of a long and weary period of misfortune that lasted, with one bright spot, till early in 1932.
There was the early stage when the car ran too hot. There was the time when two crankshafts went in two weeks. There was the time when, two days before the Monte Carlo Rally, my passenger dropped out. There were the brakes that would not brake. There was the main jet that choked in the non-stop section of the road circuit of the JCC High Speed Trial. There was the oil pressure that could never be relied upon to stay up. There was that leak in the gasket that let water into one of the cylinders, but only intermittently, so that we were for a long time completely baffled. But the performance was there, always beckoning us on towards the time when we would run in that road race.
The one bright spot referred to and a much-needed shot in the arm, occurred in September, 1930. Officially known as the MCC High Speed Trial, it was generally known among the fraternity as “the one-hour blind.” The car was lined up with sixty others by the Vickers sheds. When the flag fell, one had sixty minutes to do as one wished round the outer circuit of Brooklands. As a number of vehicles were driven absolutely flat out for this period, some of the averages put up were very impressive. So were the “blow-ups” !
It is interesting to consider what the standard sports cars of those days could do. In the 850-cc class, JC Elwes covered 73.29 miles in a 747-cc Austin in its final Ulster form, supercharged. This was not really a representative average but that of a car superlatively tuned and driven flat out. Three 850-cc Midgets and another blown Ulster all averaged over 60 mph.
We ourselves had decided that it was quite impossible for our run of bad luck to continue. Therefore we were bound to be the fastest of the non-supercharged 750s. Sixty miles in the hour would see any of our competitors off. With that elusive road race ever in mind, we also had set up, under Ian Macdonald, what was to be the nucleus of a pit organisation. Macdonald, assisted by a signaller and two timekeepers, would keep us up to covering 60 miles in that hour.
Even on the one big Solex, the car’s acceleration gave us a handsome getaway, and when the 1,100s started to come past—all classes started together—some judicious slipstreaming gave a rev-counter reading of 92 mph down the Railway Straight ! As might have been expected, this brought forth an immediate slow signal from the justifiably outraged Macdonald, accompanied, so I seem to remember, by some hand signals of what appeared to be a threatening nature !
The result was that we did in fact finish with the fastest time although only just, as the last two laps were covered at a crawl. The oil bottle tried to turn it up at the last moment. So we only managed 57.18 miles.
Of the 1,100s, Chinery covered 67.39 miles in a Riley, while in the 1,600-cc class Westbrook’s Alvis was best with 75.51; two others in this class also exceeded 70 miles in the hour. Just why the organisers hit on this peculiar limit of 1,600 cc is obscure. No competing car exceeded the usual 1,500-cc limit.
Lord de Clifford’s Lagonda was the best 2-litre, covering 82.04 miles, Kipling’s Hotchkiss the best 3-litre with 85 miles, and CH Wood’s Big Six Bentley fastest of them all, covering 91.38 miles. How much better—or worse !—would the “off the peg” sports car do today ? It must be remembered that while coming off the banking on to the Railway Straight one’s speed went appreciably higher than the lap average. On the other hand, the hill up past Vickers slowed the cars, particularly the smaller, very considerably. In 1932 our luck changed. Everything worked—potently. Awards ranged from such diverse events as the London-Land’s End Reliability Trial to the Brooklands Test Hill. In the former, in a particularly tough year, 68 cars failed to finish. Out of 48 starters in the class only 10 received first-class awards, including us. In the Brooklands Test Hill event, a second in the unlimited class was obtained ! Most important of all, from my point of view, the car ran magnificently in the JCC High Speed Trial. In torrential rain, it worked its way through the field until only one of the two blown cars in the class was ahead of us.
With wins in the Dancer’s End Hill Climb both in the 1,100 and 850-cc events, 1932 came to an end. The results had been heartening and I felt that my apprenticeship had been well and truly served. Now for road racing!
(To be continued nest month)